Don’t get me wrong, I’m a placid library employee who enjoys long walks in nearby woodlands, crunching through autumn leaves and wearing big woolly jumpers. I’ve no particular desire to stumble across a real dead body while on a walk (and it’s always at the back of my mind that that could happen – you know what they say about dog-walkers and joggers being the ones who find the bodies, right?), but in my reading life, if there are going to be bodies, I want lots of ‘em! Authors can just be so darned creative when it comes to killings and I’m here for the slaughter!
Thus, to celebrate the coming season of all things ghastly, and the beginning of Spooktastic Reads in just a couple of days’ time, here are ten of my favourite books with a body count. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, but what they all have in common is some truly exhilarating ends. Mwah-ha-ha!
Oh … also, SPOILERS for all ten titles! #sorrynotsorry
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
(44% death rate*)
This is a problematic slice of historical fiction. I read it first about ten years ago and listened to the audiobook early this year to count up the deaths when I had the idea for this post. I enjoyed it as much the second time round as I did the first, even though I could still see its problems (which can all be loosely gathered under the umbrella of ‘historical accuracy, lack thereof’).
Despite this, it’s an atmospheric read. A group of pilgrims, strangers to each other and all hiding pretty impressive secrets, begin travelling together out of necessity. As they attempt to outrun the plague their secrets are revealed and members of their group are picked off one by one.
My favourite death? The first one – a hanging that beats all the others hands down purely for ambiance. Even the horrific second death doesn’t quite pack the punch of this first one for me.
“Nine belong to the wolf.”
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
(50% death rate*)
Lauren Beukes does weird so very well. Broken Monsters is an odd blend of police procedural and supernatural thriller with a good dollop of social commentary on top. I genuinely don’t know how to blurb it. The deaths here are the work of a serial killer and, you could say, presentation is everything. That’s all I’m giving you. Read it.
My favourite death? The one where a character’s bird tattoos tear up and out of their skin as they fall through a doorway between realities. Take that!
“There is a world beneath the world that is rich and tangled with meaning.”
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
(56% death rate*)
Oh-ho! But if you want to read a book with some really fantastic deaths, Into the Drowning Deep is the one. Mira Grant’s mermaids are every kind of scary and you just know that filmmakers in search of mythic creatures are going to do stupid things when faced with said creatures, and die horribly. Hurrah!
My favourite death? Heather’s death in the submersible is *chef’s kiss* perfect. Again, it’s the first, the one that gets everyone’s attention in the story. There are three heart-breaking deaths too, that should be acknowledged, and it’s more than a little interesting that none of them are human.
“We forgot about them, but they never forgot about us … Most of all, they never forgot that we were delicious.”
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
(58% death rate*)
(or 100%, depending upon your interpretation of events – but maybe that’s just me?)
I love this book. Annihilation is so weird and beautiful. It deals with unknown quantities and with the unreliability of our senses (because is it a tower, or a tunnel?). It’s a book that captures perfectly how we might react to an encounter with alien life (maybe). It’s a puzzle and a question.
My favourite death? I’m not sure I have one here, because some of the deaths are possibly not deaths at all but transformations. The closest thing to my favourite death in this book is the biologist’s discovery of all the diaries at the lighthouse – all those previous expeditions, so many more than we knew about …
“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness…”
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
(72% death rate*)
More encounters with the mysterious and the alien, I read this not expecting much at all and ended up enjoying it heaps. Because not being able to see the Scary Thing without being driven mad and killing yourself is bloomin’ terrifying.
My favourite death has got to be Olympia’s. It’s the climax to the story, terrible for so many reasons and stunningly dramatic. )My least favourite death, on the other hand, is Victor’s. That nearly destroyed me, thanks very much Mr Malerman).
“How far can a person hear? Malorie needs the children to hear into the trees, into the wind, into the dirt banks that lead to an entire world of living creatures. The river is an ampitheatre, Malorie muses, paddling. But it’s also a grave.”
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
(75% death rate*)
This was our first book for the reading group we set up at work (which lasted all of two sessions before lockdown happened and has yet to be restarted – yay, 2020!). I picked it thinking that historical, gothic and lightly spooky was the perfect way to gauge the group and get a conversation going. ‘Lightly spooky’ – ha! I had no idea going in that this was going to be the slaughter-fest that it was, but I frigging loved it!
My favourite death? Helen, the maid, impaled by a deer head’s antlers. *Mwua-ha-ha-ha!*
“She did not want to store this image of her boy: waxy and puffed; features imprinted with horror; vicious cuts to the dear skin. But she knew it would encroach, stealthily, and overwrite all the happier times. Death, once conceived, was rapacious. It took all with it.”
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
(78% death rate*)
In a dystopian, bomb-ravaged and near-deserted New York hitman Spademan goes about his business. When his latest target is revealed to be pregnant, he goes on a spree to protect her from those who really, really want her dead. This little slip of a book is a swift punch to the gut, driven by dialogue and fast, bloody action, and it left me feeling drained.
My favourite death? Dave the doorman’s demise was deliciously deserved.
“I’m not the decision. I’m just the action.
I’m just the bullet.
So I don’t need to justify it or live with it.
That’s your job.”
30 Days of Night by Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith
(88% death rate*)
In Barrow, Alaska, the sun doesn’t rise between November 18th and December 17th making it the perfect holiday location for a group of vampires looking to sample the local cuisine. The other two parts of the original trilogy, Dark Days and Return to Barrow are equally good, but this first story has got the edge with this one simple idea and Ben Templesmith’s terrifying, shark-eyed vampires.
My favourite death? Taylor getting taken out in his helicopter by the boss vamp who leaps at him from the ground – a ‘Hell, yes! … but nooooo!’ moment if ever I saw one.
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson
(98% death rate* – approx.)
Every time Molly bleeds, even from the most incidental of injuries, a clone of her appears and tries to kill her. But her mom and dad have taught her well and she fights, kills, dismembers and disposes of these mollies as regularly as the rest of us take out the trash. Do I really need to say any more?
My favourite death? What happens to Leon, and will happen to James, is just downright awesome … creepy … awesome … I can’t decide … but it’s memorable.
“I wake into a universe defined by pain.”
The Explorer by James Smythe
(100% death rate*)
Everybody dies in chapter one. Ha! That’s not even a spoiler.
The crew of the Ishiguro have one objective, to travel out as far as they can. And journalist Cormac Easton’s job is to record the journey. Of all the books on this list, this is the one I feel most ambiguous about. It was a tense, chilly read, but none of the characters were anywhere near likeable. Nonetheless, it made an impression … and that’s why it’s here.
My favourite death? The narrator blowing up the spaceship and his only-survivor-self with it.
“I’ve thought about killing myself, but something stops me. Just think, it says, you’ll go further than anyone else has ever been. You’ll see deeper into space than anybody else has ever seen. You’ll make history.”
*The mortality rate for each book has been calculated by counting up all characters introduced by the author, named and unnamed, and taking away the number who are then bumped off. My maths is not what it should be, so take percentages as advisory. Nonetheless, this was my favourite bit of preparation for this post!